The Irish border backstop has long been the major stumbling block between the UK and the EU in the Brexit negotiations. However, Michel Barnier has hinted that the EU may be prepared to take a more flexible approach. Earlier this week he told Hilary Benn’s visiting Brexit Select Committee:
“The Withdrawal Agreement has to have an operational backstop in it, which holds water legally. Ladies and gentlemen, it is not necessarily our backstop, as covered in this document. We are open to discussing other backstops, so we can discuss this text, we can make changes to it.”
Barnier also said that he was relaxed about what form any border controls could take, endorsing the sort of technological methods and dispersed spot checks which Brexiteers have long mooted as potential solutions to the Irish border conundrum, without the UK having to remain bound to the EU’s customs and regulatory systems:
“We need the necessary controls but we don’t want in any way to undermine the constitutional structure of the United Kingdom…
We need to see how and when and where these controls would take place. They could be dispersed. They could take place in different places, on board vessels, in ports outside Ireland, they could be done using technological means, they could be dispersed, as I said, or simplified in technological terms.
“Just to make that absolutely clear, we are not talking about a border. We are talking about controls.”
No-one denies that the Irish border is one of the most challenging aspects of Brexit, but the inexplicably rigid definition of precisely what constitutes a “soft” Irish border as agreed in the December deal has turned what was a challenging problem into a truly Herculean task. This newfound flexibility from Michel Barnier will be essential if both sides are serious about reaching a deal…